Hans Frei's Typology of Christian Theology: A Comparative Look at the Islamic Tradition

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Introduction

Types of Christian Theology by Hans W. Frei (1922-88) (1) investigates the various attitudes of Western theologians and philosophers toward modern Protestant theology. (2) Frei chose variables by which he categorized the writings of these thinkers into types. This essay first analyzes Frei's typology, locating some of these variables and demonstrating how they work within the Christian tradition. Types of Christian Theology. Then, it finds some parallels to Frei's types in the Islamic tradition, specifically in modern articulations of theology and interpretation of scripture. In this comparative study, it will become clear that some of the variables used by Frei apply to the Islamic case as well and that Frei's typology, despite its Christian-specific formulation, can be of great value in the study of the spectrum of positions in Islamic theology and textual interpretation, provided that its specific intra-Christian formulation is taken into account.

Objections against the Comparative Study of Christian and Islamic Theologies

The objection might be raised that a typology formulated within a specific religious tradition can hardly be transferred to another. Granted, the development of theology and of the interpretation of scriptures is different in the Christian and Islamic traditions. Despite the differences and particularity of each tradition, however, the Islamic and Christian traditions have striking similarities in the development of their modern theologies and scriptural interpretation. In both traditions certain texts were canonized and believed to be inspired by God, and these texts formed the basis for praxis within certain communities. Then, in a later period, dogmatic and theological formulations were debated and then fixed according to the dominant "orthodox" tradition. Some of these debates were related to the theory of interpretation and the levels or senses of scriptural meaning. In the Middle Ages, in both traditions, the multiplicity of senses became a major issue in scriptural interpretation. Some exegetical works such as those provided by Sufi interpreters of the Qur'an and those of the Bible stressed the multiplicity of levels of meaning and gave primary weight to the ones that were beyond the literal, such as the spiritual or the allegorical. Such figures as Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274 C.E.), (3) Muslim theologian and jurist Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 C.E.), (4) and his Syrian student, Qur'an exegete Abri al-Fida' Ibn Kathir (1301-1373 C.E.), (5) played a major role in establishing the primacy of the literal sense of meaning over the others. (6)

Thus, in the premodern period, there was a consensus among the "orthodox" tradition in both cases on the dominance of the literal sense of meaning as a hermeneutic principle in the process of interpretation of scripture. Frei, in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, mentioned that, after the Reformation, Protestant biblical interpretation stressed the primacy of the literal sense according to a realistic historical view, but later criticism shifted this literal understanding to refer to "what the original sense of a text was to its original audience," forging a new, realistic reading. (7) In the Islamic tradition, since the early formulations of the classical period, the literal sense was given primacy over the mystical (or spiritual) sense. The literal sense of meaning was fixed to refer to "what the word or a phrase refers to according to the Arabic usage in the early centuries of Islam." (8) Frei referred to a similar movement toward the primacy of literality in the Christian interpretive tradition as the direct reading of the "plain" text. (9) Using other senses of meaning in scriptural interpretation in both traditions became permissible only in special cases--for example, the case in which the context would make a literal understanding collide with a basic theological principle. …